The 2014 – 2015 NPHL regular season kicks off Saturday with three games on the schedule featuring all six teams.
This offseason was a rocky one for the North Peace Hockey League following another tough conclusion to the previous year. Last year both the Hythe Mustangs and Lakeland Eagles ceased operations and were folded mid way through the season and the Valleyview Jets never even got started. Things didn’t get much better when news broke out this fall that both the Dawson Creek Canucks and High Prairie Regals requested a one year leave of absence. Teams will often be granted a one year leave while they sort out the issues preventing them from competing but it’s often hard for them to return from a hiatus as most former players move onto either another team or hang up the skates.
So the NPHL, with a long storied tradition, enters the 2014 – 2015 season with a bleak forecast. A six team league requires more travel, more commitment and ultimately more money for these non-profit hockey clubs and for some it’s getting harder and harder to meet those needs.
Still, the show must go on.
Opening weekend kicks off with three games, Grande Prairie at Grimshaw, Manning at Spirit River, and Fort St. John at Falher.
Grande Prairie at Grimshaw
The Athletics enter the season boasting a lot of familiar faces but a whole heck of new youth. Home to the biggest market in the NPHL the A’s have found themselves at the top of the NPHL regular season standings since winning it all in 09 but have faulted come playoff time. A loss in overtime in game 7 three years ago to the Falher Pirates has been as close as Grande Prairie has got since last winning in 2009. The A’s have fallen to arch rival Spirit River the past two seasons in the Western division semi-finals and will be looking to start the season off on a solid note.
The Grimshaw Huskies finished last season with an 11 and 13 record good enough for third place in the Eastern Division. The Huskies nearly surprised everyone when they pushed the eventual East champion Falher Pirates in the semi finals to seven games. Once again a strong mix of new young players has helped Grimshaw turn the page and they’ll be looking to get off to a good start this season. The biggest question for the Huskies will be how the match up playing stronger competition as all six teams left in the NPHL stood above Grimshaw in the standings.
Manning at Spirit River
The Manning Comets capped a successful second season by capturing the Lawrence cup as the regular season champs last year edging out the Athletics by two points. Much like their East companions it’s going to be interesting to see how they fare against the tougher teams formerly of the West division. They will have no better chance then to showcase that they’re ready when the face off against the two time defending champion Rangers on the road. A strong presence in net combined with some new faces throughout the line-up should help Manning compete once again for the NPHL crown.
Spirit River enters the season with aspirations of doing something few times dream of. A two peat is tough, but a three peat seems next to impossible. The Rangers return with a lot of the same familiar faces that have guided them to the NPHL championship that past two seasons. It certainly won’t be a cake walk this season with all six teams boasting improved rosters which should make for tougher competition for every team. Despite finishing in third place in the West, Spirit River ran the table in the playoffs winning 12 straight games. Opening night should give them a good test as their high scoring offense will be in tough against the leagues best in net.
Fort St. John at Falher
The Fort St. John Flyers returned to the North Peace Hockey League full time last season and nearly found themselves finishing first in the West. For years the Flyers competed for the triple AAA crown and won a Allan Cup through the duration of it. Now there focus looks to be on the NPHL and the future couldn’t be brighter. As has always been the case for Fort St John more travel could potentially play a big role in the on ice product. With multiple trips to Falher, Grimshaw, and Manning what the Flyers can afford to show up with on the road will be interesting, still they will be one of the toughest teams to beat on home ice.
The Pirates are coming off a season where they came close to capturing their second title in three years. Opening night in Falher will be fun regardless of the outcome but for the home town faithful it should be a good test. Last year the Pirates opened the season on a winning note but they will be tasked with a different opponent and a different style of game. In order to be successful the Pirates will need to match the speed, physicality, and have a solid performance in goal.
What To Watch For
The NPHL is stacked with the fewest teams it’s seen in years and while the forecast of future seasons is dim, one thing is for certain this season…every game will mean something. The past few years there has been a pretty large discrepancy between the best and the worst, this season should all but eliminate that with every team having the capability to win. For people unfamiliar with the league we urge you to check out a game in your local market, with former players from the ranks of pro, college, and junior making up teams it’s arguably the most entertaining and affordable hockey in the Peace Country and their won’t be a game not worth watching this season.
A win for the fans and hopefully the league.